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Preventing Choke in the Horse


Martin W. Adams, PhD, PAS – Equine Nutritionist for Southern States

Choke or esophageal obstruction occurs when the horse is provided with food items that are too large to be quickly chewed into smaller particles, like carrots or alfalfa cubes, when consumption is too rapid and the horse tends to “bolt” his feed, when salivation is impaired or reduced, and when the horse has a dental problem or is eating from an elevated position, and is not able to properly chew its feed. Whenever any part of the horse’s diet is changed, especially when items like cubes or pellets are fed, extra care or management to reduce the risk of choke should be practiced.

A trainer pouring Tripple Crown horse feed

Choke is observed more often with pelleted feeds as horses can eat a larger amount more quickly with less chewing, and the consumption rate must be slowed in order to prevent further episodes of choking. Measures to slow consumption rate and prevent choke include lowering the feeder, providing a larger feeder so that feed is available in a more shallow manner, placing objects (large stones or individual salt blocks) in the feeder, wetting or soaking the feed with water, and mixing ½ to two pounds of chopped forage, soaked alfalfa cubes or soaked beet pulp with the concentrate meal. There are special feeders which are larger than regular feeding buckets, they are designed to be placed at ground level in the stall. These special feeders also contain several indentations or wells that feed will accumulate in to reduce intake.

Regular dental examinations with treatment (floating of sharp points on dental ridges, etc.) will help to prevent episodes of choke. Horse treats, hay cubes and carrots that are given to the horse should be reduced to the size of a thumb, and beet pulp and alfalfa cubes that are not fed off the ground and added to a concentrate meal should be soaked with water for a minimum of 30 minutes before feeding.

Once a choke has occurred and scar tissue in the throat has formed, all feed and hay should be soaked with water for several weeks after the incident has occurred to prevent further choking episodes and irritation of the area. Pelleted high-fiber horse feeds and cubed hay soaked with enough water to form a mash is recommended for feeding horses that are recovering from choke. Feeds with large amounts of shredded beet pulp that have been opened and/or stored for several weeks can become very dry and more likely to cause a choking problem and should be wetted or soaked before feeding, especially when the feeder is elevated well above ground level (hung from a rail in the stall or a fence in the pasture).

How we feed horses can be as important as what we feed. Horses are designed to eat off the ground which is evident by the fact that the lower jaw only slides forward into proper grinding position when its head is down. Eating from a raised feeder can result in improperly chewed food, improper tooth wear, decreased saliva, increased incidence of choke and respiratory issues from more inspired dust and mold in hay and grain.


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